Life after the engagement survey: a conversation in Rotterdam

“It’s time to get rid of the employee engagement survey.”

“We need to stop focusing on how many we engage, and start focusing on who we engage and how well.”

“What engages people is not remuneration but seeing a connection between one’s work and its social and organizational impact.”

I love hosting panel discussions.  This week, at #EuroComm16, IABC’s fantastic regional conference in Rotterdam, I hosted one on a topic of my choosing: “Beyond Engagement.”

Beyond Engagement looked at how uncoupling the IC function from a focus on Employee Engagement survey scores could have a liberating effect on the function and the profession, and potentially on employees and their enterprises as well.

Full disclosure

I knew that none of the panelists – Kami Lamakan, Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard, Markela Dedopoulos, and Ger Peerboom – were engagement survey enthusiasts.  We weren’t here to praise the Employee Engagement Survey.  We were here to bury it.

Ger started the shovelling right away, noting that the drive for high survey participation in a large global petrochemical company produced contradictory effects.  Employees in one region actively resisted participating, and in another, he said, they produced survey results reflecting what the respondents thought the company wanted to hear instead of an accurate reflection of employee opinion.

Markela continued the burial by saying “STOP THE ENGAGEMENT SURVEY,” pointing out a crucial flaw in its annual recurrence.  “It’s supposed to cover a year, but for some employees, it covers the last week or even the last minute.”

Dancing on the proverbial grave

Having thus buried the Engagement Survey, if perhaps just for the purposes of discussion, the panellists opened up the conversation I was aiming for—a discussion of what becomes possible with a more open agenda, one that allows focus on a broader arrange of topics, and much greater ability to select and focus on specific audiences and individuals.

 “The biggest possibility is deeper engagement”

One point of view was that there could be an improved quality of engagement itself. Kami, a consultant with a strong philosophical bent, noted scientific research about how different motives stimulate motivation and behavior.

Even if organizations successfully define and align a common purpose, he added, individual engagement is driven more on individual motives, and these can be best harnessed without the one-size-fits-all mass communication approach driven be the quest for high employee survey scores.  How would these be harnessed – Kami emphasized the power of “great conversations” and looking at how to create the right conditions for success as opposed to trying to drive success through brute force.

“The power will be in who we engage and how we engage them”

Coming from his perspective as the CEO of Innovisor, the market leader in Social Network Analysis, Jeppe was emphatic in emphasizing both the different ways in which employees engage with their colleagues and their organizations, and the power available from identifying, connecting and mobilizing the most influential employees to drive key conversations and initiatives.

“We need to engage the right people,” Markela added.  Not only did Markela support the idea of identifying key influencers and advocates, she also actively included them as video hosts and article writers and spokespeople throughout her IC activities in various large enterprises in Denmark. “People want to hear from people they trust.  It made a real difference in the way people responded to our content, and some of these videos even ended up on YouTube.”

“It’s time to give up control”

When it comes to content Ger was keen to raise the idea that “it’s time to give up control,” a theme also emphasized by other IABC EuroComm speakers.  In giving up control and empowering employees to post and publish as they see fit, he sees the role of the communicator as being one that ensures that the facts are correct and understandable, so that even without “control”, the conversation remains connected with organizational objectives and operational realities.

Looking ahead: beyond engagement, beyond control

Adding the conversation up, my clear sense is that if we move away from controlled morale-focused broadcasting to uncontrolled multi-directional communication, the main role, and indeed, the main hope for the internal communicator is to act as a conductor and a broker—to help make sure the right people are sharing the right information and clarifying the right direction.

At EuroComm16, there was considerable interest in this approach.

It remains unclear whether communicators are willing to embrace it. But if not, what does the future hold for the internal communicator?